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Saints player bounty suspensions overturned on appeal

A collective bargaining agreement appeals panel overturned the NFL's suspensions of four players for their involvement in the New Orleans Saints' "bounty" program, NFL Players Association spokesman George Atallah said Friday.

While the suspensions are vacated immediately, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell can go back and suspend the four players if he proves there was an intent to injure. NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said all players are eligible to play, starting this weekend, until Goodell does so.

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According to Larry Holder of The Times-Picayune, Aiello said Goodell will not re-rule on the player suspensions before Sunday's games.

"Consistent with the panel's decision, Commissioner Goodell will, as directed, make an expedited determination of the discipline imposed for violating the league's pay-for-performance/bounty rule," Aiello said in a statement. "Until that determination is made, the four players are reinstated and eligible to play starting this weekend."

Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma was suspended for the entire 2012 season, free agent Anthony Hargrove for eight games, Saints defensive end Will Smith for four games and Cleveland Browns linebacker Scott Fujita three games.

Fujita and Hargrove played for the Saints during the program's duration, from 2009 to 2011, under former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who was suspended indefinitely by the NFL. The suspensions of Williams, coach Sean Payton (season-long), general manager Mickey Loomis (eight games) and assistant head coach Joe Vitt (six games) weren't involved in this appeals process.

The NFL Players Association noted its support of the overturned player suspensions in a statement: "We are pleased that the appeals panel ruled unanimously to lift the players' suspensions immediately. We will continue to vigorously protect the rights of all players."

Vilma took to Twitter to express his satisfaction about the ruling, writing: "Victory is mine!!!!."

Hargrove's agent, Phil Williams, wouldn't comment on his client's status. Williams also wouldn't say whether or not teams had begun calling him now that Hargrove is eligible to be on the field for the opening week of the 2012 NFL season.

"It's all too new," Williams told NFL.com and NFL Network reporter Ian Rapoport.

When asked if his client is physically able to play after being released by the Green Bay Packers in August, Williams said: "Of course. He's ready to play if he falls out of bed after a month."

According to a source close to Smith, the defensive end plans to play Sunday in the Saints' regular-season opener against the Washington Redskins and has been led to believe by the team that he will play.

"Thank you to everyone involved in the process of this solution," Smith tweeted. "And everyone who supported us through this whole ordeal"

Fujita also shared his gratitude on Twitter: "I'm overwhelmed with all the support. Thank you so much everyone. Can't tell you how much it means to me."

The Saints received a roster exemption for Vilma so they will not have to make a corresponding roster cut to accommodate the linebacker. But Smith now counts against the team's active roster.

Mary Kay Cabot of The Plain Dealer first reported the Browns had been granted a roster exemption for Fujita.

Saints safety Roman Harper said he'd welcome the return of his defensive teammates, Vilma and Smith.

"Well, if coach (Aaron) Kromer would let him come out, I'd definitely like to play with these guys," Harper told reporters.

"I'm excited," Saints quarterback Drew Brees told NFL.com and NFL Network reporter Aditi Kinkhabwala. "I've been focused on the game, but I hoped that that would be the case. No, I'm not surprised. I wouldn't call me surprised. Obviously, they saw the information that we've seen for a long time."

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer

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